2016-06-30
Though "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is generally billed as a Disney film, it was developed by a small production company called Walden Media. Walden was founded by two former college roommates, Micheal Flaherty and Cary Granat, with the mission of producing films, books and interactive programs that would be fun, high-quality, and educational. The company has made such films as "Holes," "Around the World in 80 Days" and "Because of Winn-Dixie." Flaherty spoke to Beliefnet from his Boston-area office.

Why Narnia, and why now?

We do something rather unique at our company. We go out and talk to teachers and librarians. They're basically the extension of our development group here. And we ask them what are the top books that you have that get kids excited about reading, that they're really passionate about. And that's where we get our entire development slate.

When we started the company about six years ago, we had a short list of properties that we wanted to develop, and Narnia was at the top of the list. The reason in terms of why now is that it took this long. But we lucked out in the sense that from the perspective of Andrew Adamson [the director], the movie couldn't have been made four years ago because the technology simply didn't exist.

What is it about Narnia that is so engaging for kids?

Fantasy is just a great door into reality. Kids love it because there's nothing better than that dream that at that age you can play such a huge and significant and historical role in your life. And what bigger role than defeating the White Witch and the forces of darkness?

What are the moral and spiritual lessons of the movie?

When we first talked to Andrew, we asked him what he thought the important ones were, and without flinching he said "Family and forgiveness." It's great that you have two brothers and two sisters who are really tight, and they learn to love one another. And in terms of their forgiveness for their brother, I don't think there are many more-powerful examples of forgiveness, and for me, my favorite books all deal with forgiveness. It's truly a forgotten virtue.

Did you try to play that up in the movie?

No, we wanted to be careful. The book is so expertly balanced, that the minute we started to embrace one theme over another theme or try to amplify one thing over another, we would have upset that delicate balance Lewis had achieved. So we wanted to make sure the film was a perfect mirror of everything that was in the book.

Christian audiences are particularly excited for the film. Did you give any specific care to how the production would come across to Christian audiences?

We always make sure the book is the North Star that everyone's following. So as long as you're true to the book and the characters and the key plot points and the themes, everything else will take care of itself. There's really no need to unpack why it's special and significant to different audiences. If everything is done in service to being faithful to the book, then it will all be in the film.

When making a movie from such an iconic book as "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," how do you proceed?

At first, we didn't know how to proceed. We started with a simple Google search. We found that the point person for the C.S. Lewis Company was a gentleman named Melvin Adams. So we did a further search for Melvin Adams, and the only one could turn up was a guy who used to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. So we didn't think it was him, but we had a guy on our staff who had also loved this book, and he--really full time--pursued finding out who had these rights and making sure we had a meeting with them to present our case to them.

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  • C.S. Lewis's estate and organization are very protective of who can do these sorts of things. How did you sell them on it?

    We just told them the whole purpose behind our company is to make faithful adaptations. And then right after we said that very proudly and nobly, they asked us what films we had released, and we answered, "Zero." [Laughs] "But we intend to make faithful adaptations!" At the time, we were making "Holes," and the author, Louis Sachar, was also the author of the screenplay, and he was on the set every day. So we told them this was the formula we wanted to continue on with for all of our films, to make sure we had complete fidelity to our source material. And since C.S. Lewis is no longer with us, we said the next best thing would be to work hand-in-hand with the people who know the property the best, Douglas Gresham [Lewis's stepson] and the people at the C.S. Lewis Company.

    I noticed in the film clips that, more so than the book, the beginning of the movie plays up the war from which the kids are being sent away. Was that an intentional choice, to relate it to some of the fears we face today?

    Louis makes such as short mention of it in the book, because that's all you needed to back in those days, because it was so fresh in everyone's mind. Sadly, I think it's forgotten by many people--the heroism and the courage people went through in the U.K. Something like 10 percent of people who died in the blitz were kids. We thought it was really important to establish that here are these kids who are caught in this war that they have no control over. And they head into a situation where they do have control.

    We have a great website, Walden.com, where you can see educators' discussions, which are pretty awesome. There's one there from a librarian in Louisiana, who said she's been using "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" to help kids adjust to life after Katrina, and drawing the parallels between Katrina and the blitz of London--this incredible devastation that upset lives. In the film, we have a big poster that we got from the Imperial War Museum in London that says, "Housing evacuees is a national service." And that was the headline we read for several weeks after Katrina.

    That's why the company exists--to use the film to create a spark and get people interested in asking the big questions

    There's been a lot written about the film's marketing approach, which is different for faith communities and the secular media. How did that come about?

    For all of our films--going back to Holes and Winn-Dixie--we've had grassroots outreach to a number of communities: schools, libraries, churches, parent organizations, after-school groups. For Narnia, it's the same approach, except, like the film, everything's magnified.

    Disney has had a lot of outreach, with a lot of their movies, to the faith community. I saw Bill Paxton, the director of "The Greatest Game Ever Played," the golf movie that came out in October, on "Hour of Power" [a televangelist broadcast] talking about his film. So it's a new day, I think, for all these films, in the day and age of TiVo.

    What do you mean by that?

    About 90 percent of any film's advertising budget is spent on television commercials, and so that's the main way they expect to get through to people. TiVo and the digital video recorders are gaining rapid adoption, and estimates there are up to three-quarters of the people who have TiVo don't watch a single television commercial. So it's not that much of a leap to realize that 90 percent of your strategy is now out the window. So how are you going to get your message out to people? It's grassroots.

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  • Many Christians are hoping that "Narnia" will be "the next 'Passion'" as far as being a pop-culture tool for evangelism. Do you share that hope?

    The church itself is changing so much in terms of how it uses popular culture to convey a message. In recent weeks, my pastor has used everything from a U2 song to "The Apprentice" to get something topical and relevant.

    Our expertise here is education. So we have a very good idea of how to use the film and make it relevant and applicable to the book. In terms of how the film can be used at church, we're out of our depth there. We really don't know how church and parachurch leaders are going to use the film. We offer no advice on how to do that. We just want to make sure everyone--whether a librarian in Louisiana or a pastor in San Francisco--understands we have this film, and film is a very powerful medium for all different kinds of things.

    What is Walden Media working on next?

    We just started filming a movie called "Amazing Grace." It's the story of William Wilberforce and John Newton and the rest of the Clapham Sect [a group of social reformers in England in the 19th century] working together to abolish slavery in the U.K. It's going to come out in March 2007, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the U.K. We're hoping we can launch a real campaign around it to get back that same sense of social justice the Clapham Sect had: How can we approach the social problems of today, and how can we can tackle things and make the world a better place?

    We also have a project called Manhunt, which is the search for John Wilkes Booth, which Harrison Ford is attached to star in.

    Where is the Narnia franchise going?

    We'd love to do all seven, but Hollywood is certainly a bottom-line driven business, so I think the success of this film will dictate that. But we're pretty confident right now and moving ahead for the next one.

    Have are your own spiritual and religious beliefs reflected in work?

    It's tough for me to parse that out, because I try to have it influence everything I do. The key for me is to try to be humble. It's sort of paradoxical: By practicing humility and saying, "I'm no expert at this," and turning that over to teachers and librarians and parents, that's been the biggest influence, in terms of asking "What do you want to see?" That's where my faith has had the biggest influence--just getting out of the way.

    How would you describe your religious identity?

    A mere Christian.

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